Straight to Helvetia

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A panel from The Hook by Thomas Ott.Swiss cheese. Swiss watch. Swiss bank account. Swiss army knife. Swiss comics.

No less than any of these venerable archetypes, comics from Helvetia are the purple elite, pulsing beacons for cartoonists to navigate by. With its nekkid liberalism and Franco-German effulgence, Switzerland should by rights have a trail of fine comics leading to its doors. And it does; one that’s traceable, in fact, to the artform’s very beginnings.

The swagging grandpère of the Swiss comics industry was one Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846), a colourful Genevan who founded a boarding school for boys and taught rhetoric at the Geneva Academy of Belles Lettres. When he wasn’t carousing with his pupes, T. was setting the table for a minor revolution, scratching drawings and text in sequence and creating Europe’s very first bandes dessinées. Töpffer was spun on the pseudo-
science of physiognomy: the practice of extrapolating a person’s character from, say, the size of their nose. An inveterate caricaturist, he considered the study a call to arms, and used it to mock, as he saw it, the lilting gait and rodential visage of the boo-shwa. Like all the early cartoonists, Töpffer was a superlative draftsman; his hair-lined, densely shaded quill work quivers with age and old-fashioned diligence. You could still see its shadow in the pages of Punch a hundred years later, or in the comics of someone like Tony Millionaire today.

T. created only six of his histoires en images (picture stories) before his death in 1846. But his work spread quickly. Since publishing was so laborious, and petty amusements like comics mere asides to the real work of printing Bibles, only 500 or so copies of each book saw print. (A curious aside: Töpffer himself held off selling his first book until he was sure his professional situation was firmly entrenched.) This encouraged hucksters to hoard the few extant copies and peddle inferior forgeries to their own comics reading masses elsewhere in Europe and North America. By 1842, when an English Töpffer translation hit America (Obadiah Oldbuck, the first comic book published in the US), his histoires were being read in lavatories worldwide.

A panel from The Hook by Thomas Ott.
Though most are oblivious to it, there’s a little Töpffer in every cartoonist who picks up a pen and winds up for a swing at the status quo. In Switzerland, though, where T.’s work is on permanent display in places like Geneva’s University Library, he is as influential today as the day he first put quill to tongue. To prove it, the Consulate-General of Switzerland has arranged an exhibit of modern Swiss comic art inspired by the master, a sort of indirect homage. The show, Töpffer and Company, was first presented three years ago at Angoulême in France — one of the world’s biggest annual comic conventions — gathering 30 of the top Swiss graphic artists, mostly from Geneva and Zürich. Adopted by Alliance Française, the show was remounted in Vancouver and Calgary, and this week debuts in Toronto.

The biggest names in Swiss comicdom are represented. Artists like Pierre Wazem, who at 28 won the Rodolphe Töpffer prize as best young Genevan cartoonist. Wazem’s work recalls Mazzuchelli with its slashes of black ink. His stories — Like a Riverand the award-winning Bretagne among them — are dark and ruminant. He’s a regular in Metal Hurlant, the French version of Heavy Metal (but forget aliens in pasties).

And Thomas Ott, Switzerland’s reigning don of the macabre: the Zürich native draws his wordless stories on black scratchboard, knifing away at the white beneath. The negative process is painstaking, but it gives his comics an ominous luminosity. He’s also a pretty tremendous draftsman, whose accuracy makes stories like the ones in his first North American collection, Greetings from Hellsville (e.g. The Job, about an assassin who keeps his eyes, and thus his conscience, in a train-station locker), especially unsettling.

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